7 Tips for Road Tripping on a Budget



Summer spells freedom! Drop tops. Flip flops. Board shorts. Most importantly, road trips! 

International travel restrictions and flight mishaps have brought one reality to the surface: there is so much to see domestically…in every country! National Park enthusiasts, campers, road trippers, and Van Life people hit the road like never before to discover the beauty and get away from it all. 

Yes, costs are a-risin’, but you still have travel goals and vacation time. Maybe you’ve even budgeted your days off! Fear not—you can still plan the road trip of your dreams without extra financial stress. 

Here are a few tips to help you save money while you’re on the road…or the road less traveled.

Theme your road trip around a free activity. 

I recently met a gentleman who plans every road trip around labyrinth hunting. I repeat: labyrinth hunting! Who knew that was a thing? The more I looked into it, I realized a) how many labyrinths exist and b) labyrinths are typically located in beautiful, untouched places, historic churches, or wooded areas. Plus, they’re free to enjoy and located all over the world! 

His love for labyrinths got me thinking: If you theme a road trip around free entertainment that interests you, you’ll wind up satisfied at every destination. 

Budget travel doesn’t have to be boring! Imagine making it your cross-country mission to discover:

  • The Nation’s best craft market or farmers market. The one in my hometown of Moscow, Idaho is hard to beat, but there are amazing food and artisan vendors far and wide!
  • The most picturesque spot for your favorite pastime, like wildlife or landscape photography, kayaking, or hiking. I’ll casually recommend Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming for all of the above.
  • The world’s coolest sports arena, like the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.
  • The most random museum of random things, like the National Mustard Museum or the Museum of Bad Art. Hey, you might just find one of my childhood drawings in there! 
  • Free community food competitions that allow you to eat your heart out, like the Texas Food Fest. Hello barbeque, it’s me…again.
  • Epic community festivals, like the Doheny Surf & Art Festival in California or the Testicle Festival in Montana. (Is it appropriate to say that here? It’s a real event, after all.)

Camp on BLM land to save on campground fees.

In planning our latest road trip, I was shocked by the rise in Airbnb, hotel room, and campsite prices. Did you know you can camp for free or cheap on BLM land? You might think you have to go way off-grid to make it happen, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how many free camping areas there are if you’re willing to take a more rustic trip. We’re talking 245 million acres of possibilities. Yep, there’s even an app to help you find free campsites when you’re road.

Save for your road trip before it happens. 

Budget confession: I used to take road trips all the time without knowing whether I could actually afford them or not. I had the proverbial convertible top up on my bank account until I found the YNAB app and method. Now that I’m riding in style with the top down (aka, I have a budget!), I know exactly where my money’s going…because I tell it where to go. I fund my road trips before they happen! Then, I simply enjoy the ride. No vacation stress. No financial strain.

A budget screenshot that shows how road tripping on a budget might work.
An example of a road trip budget. YMMV!

While I’m planning my road trips these days, I add a buffer of funds in my fuel category to account for rising gas prices and allocate some extra dollars to auto maintenance just in case. Yes, it’s possible to take a road trip or vacation without money stress along the way. You’re simply prioritizing your income and giving your dollars the job of making lifetime memories.

Consider purchasing a AAA membership. 

As much as I love road trips, auto maintenance is not my first language! Still, I wasn’t sold on the value of a AAA membership until my car broke down in the Arizona desert. Their roadside service was fast, friendly, and safe in a moment when I felt scared, sweltering hot, and helpless. The mechanic was able to change my tire on the spot and saved me time and money compared to getting my car towed to an urban area and serviced at a dealership.

Yes, there is an upfront cost, but if you use AAA travel planning, roadside assistance, restaurant discounts, and hotel deals for your road trip, you’ll likely make up for the membership fee in savings.

Stock up on snacks and beverages before your trip. 

Remember going to the Dollar Store for less expensive movie candy and sneaking it into the theater? The same trick works for road tripping on a budget. Instead of paying for overpriced food and beverages at gas stations or restaurants along the way, stock up on your own meals and snacks at a discount store or bulk retailer. While fancy foods on the road are a nice treat, you don’t have to splurge on dining out for every meal for an enjoyable vacation. Sure, those Mickey Dee’s french fries taste great on the open road, but fast food discomfort and long road trips don’t mix well.

Instead, buy your “hangry” essentials at a grocery store ahead of time and keep them in a cooler. Think: salami, cheese, bread, crackers, apples, granola, bananas, peanut butter, protein bars, chocolate, coffee, and gallon jugs of water. You’d be surprised how many more miles you can make it past the only restaurant option with healthy snacks and proper hydration!

Save on National Park fees.

If you’re planning a Tour de National Parks, fees add up. Yes, the fees contribute to an incredible network of parks and protected areas, and that’s important. However, if your budget is stretched already and you still have National Parks on your bucket list, Fee-Free Park Days may become your best friend.

Planning to visit more than one National Park this year? Take advantage of the Annual National Park Pass to save a lot of money on entrance fees. It’s like getting a bulk deal on beautiful views.

Set cruise control, baby.

One way to achieve better gas mileage, battle inflation, and enjoy a more budget-friendly trip is simply setting cruise control. It sounds obvious, but it pays back in spades. As I mentioned, auto maintenance isn’t my first language, but for some reason cars are more fuel efficient when you don’t drive the way I do (speeding up and slowing down constantly, never really finding a happy medium). Set cruise control and watch those MPGs rise, then use the GasBuddy app to find the cheapest gas for your next pit stop!

Speaking of cruise control, that free and easy feeling is exactly what you can expect when you gain total control of your finances. Try YNAB for free for 34 days and you’ll be road tripping on a budget in no time! Ready to feel the wind in your hair? Let’s hit the road!